“Where shall we go on holiday?” Lady Barton St Mary asked me, “What would you like to do?”
She’d only had a couple of days off this year, what with running a multinational company and supervising staff below stairs. I had also been busy. I was at least 4 episodes behind on Deal or No Deal. Noel would be livid.
I thought for a moment. Then another moment. Nothing came to mind.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, exasperated, “what would be your ideal holiday?”
I thought a little longer and my butterfly brain went into freeze mode. I had a sudden realisation that I wasn’t actually interested in anything – what about staying at home, drawing the curtains, opening a bottle of scotch and turning on the X Box? Oh dear.
Of course, she came up trumps. 10 days in Portugal in the Western Algarve in The Penina Golf Hotel. Of course, I don’t play golf, but Lady BSM had carried out her research and discovered it had a running route. 10 days was long enough to relax and not too long before I started pacing up and down or offering to run a bar at the hotel.
We had a room overlooking the pool, the largest pool in Western Algarve. This again gave me the opportunity to watch the sun lounger reservists go into action. Disappointingly, there didn’t appear to be any on my first morning of observation, returning from my run. How civilised, I thought, until I discovered the pool gates were locked until 9 am. I saw them all queuing up to get in a couple of days later. The queuing gave it away, of course, in that all the lounger hogs were British. The thing about the Germans is all mythical, made up by the Brits.
The hotel was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. There was a bus service that took you down to the beach and we took a ride on our second day. We looked out over the golden sands, deep blue sea, sunbathers under little straw parasols.
“I can see you’re completely underwhelmed,” said Lady BSM, shaking her head. I managed to look impassive as we promenaded along the front, past the fisherman repairing nets and made our way into the centre of Alvor. It became apparent fairly quickly that Alvor the town was not the most picturesque of places, so we went to the local supermacado to buy our contraband.
You see, the hotel had a strict policy that you weren’t allowed to bring in any of your own food and drink ‘for security reasons’. I think the ‘security reason’ was that if you did so, they wouldn’t be able to charge such eye wateringly high prices for drinks and snacks. We returned to the hotel, Lady BSM doing her best to keep me upright as I carried in a rucksack stacked with gin, tonic, beer, lemonade and peanuts as nonchalantly as possible. It was only the following day when I watched a Portuguese family march through the lobby laden with carrier bags full of hooch and a defiant look on their faces that I realised the hotel staff were rather reluctant to challenge any maverick guests.
By the second evening, we were suitably relaxed. Lady BSM, realising that she had to spend 10 days alone with me, followed her usual tradition of sinking a couple of stiff gin and tonics and sitting in a corner, rocking back and forth and weeping quietly for half an hour.
The buffet breakfast was OK. Buffet breakfasts are always more of an entertainment than a culinary experience. It’s great to sit there and make up the back stories of the other guests – he must be a former professional footballer; she’s run away with her boss; she’s the boss and he’s run away with her…
It’s also a great time to judge people. Lady BSM and I spent hours appreciating some the cosmetic surgery some women had subjected themselves to. One women looked as if somebody was continuously having her bottom pinched, her face in a permanent expression of surprise. A couple of others had so much botox injected into their lips they were pulling that face your kids make when you refuse to buy them an ice cream.
Talking of kids, this was a ‘family’ hotel, so there were quite a few of them scuttling about; toddlers with hollow eyed parents discouraging them from headbutting concrete steps or chewing electric cables; other parents telling their children to do something or to be quiet in a loud voice; parents repeating their young child’s name over and over again as he/she disappears onto the fairway. All the things you’ve forgotten you did with your own children, but somehow find harder to tolerate as you get older. You see, children are like passing wind; you can tolerate your own most of the time, but anybody else’s can be hard to cope with and often appear downright obnoxious.
The cuisine at the Penina was interesting, as my mother used to say. To be more accurate, my mother would have said the ‘so-called’ cuisine at The Penina was interesting. We spent one evening having the ‘fine dining’ menu, where I chose the traditional Portuguese fish soup. The waiter was delighted, giving me many compliments and kissing his fingers passionately. It was memorable. Here’s the recipe:
Take one tin of salmon. Open and place in the middle of a large bowl. Pour hot water over it. Serve.
“The Penina is not renowned for its food,” a regular guest informed us.
We decided to go further afield after a few days, catching a taxi into Alvor. The bus stopped at 2.45pm, with one running in the evening to the hotel’s beach side restaurant. I asked if we could catch the bus, but alas, the member of staff told me it was for diners only, but if I paid for the meal in advance, we could have a seat. He wasn’t stupid, he’d obviously tasted the food himself.
We found a lovely restaurant called O Arco da Velha, recommended by Trip Advisor the sort of place you would have walked straight past normally. The fillet steaks were wonderful and the service fantastic. Alvor didn’t improve in the evening, but seemed busier than ever, all flashing lights and binge drinking opportunities.
The following evening, we ventured into Lagos, via Portimao and Praia da Rocha, which apparently has a beautiful beach. We never saw it. Both places were a Portuguese version of Croydon.
We found the best place to eat in Lagos – a restaurant called Xpreitique, which apparently means ‘have a look’. The tapas was fantastic, even though there was a power cut in the restaurant and the entertainment provided by several electricians fiddling about in the fuse box. So fantastic, we returned for a second time a couple of nights later. It was also far, far cheaper than the hotel, if you discounted the 40 euros we had to spend on the taxi to get there and back.
Ah, the taxis. We quickly discovered that the taxi company employed by the hotel consisted of the Portuguese taxi drivers’ version of the seven dwarfs – Chesty, Snotty, Sneezy, Smelly, Nutty, Speedy and Normal. Guess which one we had the least.
We spent our days walking around looking at the lovely villas on the golf courses or on a lounger a little distance from the pool with other European guests, since the British had commandeered all of the pool side loungers before catching their buses into Alvor to stock up on lager and baked beans. Lady BSM amused herself researching properties for sale. For a while, it looked like the dream I shared with Chicken Sue about running away to Portugal was going to come true. In hindsight, having to spend all day sitting next to my own pool writing my first novel wouldn’t be as romantic as I imagine it to be. Would it?
Lady BSM even contemplated the possibility of taking up golf, but after considering the cost and the disadvantage of having to dress in silly clothes, it started to look less appealing.
The day before we left, Lady BSM gave me a big hug.
“Thank you for a lovely holiday,” she said. I think she may have been suffering from heatstroke.
I would happily return to the Algarve and to Portugal. The people are genuine and friendly, quite happy to let you know how they feel. This was best illustrated on a visit to a bar in Alvore. A rather lugubrious looking waiter approached.
“How are you?” I asked him cheerfully.
“Shit,” he replied, “ I am so tired. I’ve been working non-stop for 9 months, the boss is an arsehole, I hate this place and I am paid hardly anything.”
“Oh dear,” I sympathised, pausing for a moment. He looked at me with a steady gaze. There was an uncomfortable silence.
“You want drink?” he asked.
We flew home on bank holiday Monday. As we stepped out of the plane, we were assailed by a stiff breeze and lashings of cold rain. The air smelled damp and the glowering clouds made everything appear dark. Welcome back.
Below are some pictures of the lovely beaches we never visited and the Atlantic Ocean we never swam in.